BMW as we know it today can almost be summed up by one model: the 3 Series. For more than 40 years and through seven generations the BMW 3 Series has been at the top of its class with global sales topping 15 million examples, an impressive performance for a compact executive car.
It’s the car that every other manufacturer wants to beat, and while some have succeeded in certain areas, the 3 Series has always remained the outstanding drivers’ car in its class, offering a level of interaction and involvement missing from other manufacturer’s models.
But do you know which is which? Can you tell one generation from another? Let us be your guide with this whistle stop tour of the BMW 3 Series bloodline.
BMW 3 SERIES: THE FIRST GENERATION E21 (1975-1983)
For a car that started one of the most successful of automotive dynasties of all time it might seem strange that the original BMW 3 Series didn’t receive universal praise at its launch, when it was widely regarded as less sporting than the 2002 model it replaced.
The basic ingredients were there though; the distinctive ‘three-box’ silhouette, trademark kidney grilles flanked by round headlights and a driver-focused cockpit with excellent ergonomics.
Initially performance from the four-cylinder engines in the 316, 318 and 320i was good without being exceptional, but the adoption of six-cylinder power for the 323i range-topper in 1977 elevated the 3 Series into the performance saloon category.
Entertaining handling and road holding made the 3 Series the default choice for the sporting driver and the first generation 3 Series quickly became BMW’s best-selling model.
BMW 3 SERIES: THE SECOND GENERATION E30 (1982-1994)
If the E21 laid the foundations for the 3 Series dynasty the second generation E30 model cemented it as the world’s ultimate small sporting saloon. It was a step up in every department.
Its styling was sharper and with more powerful engines in models such as the 170bhp 325i it was a genuine sports saloon. Most buyers opted for the slightly less expensive 318i or 320i models and trim levels included SE (Special Equipment) or Sport on the 325i, which included sports seats, stiffer suspension and a limited slip differential.
The E30 range expanded to include two- or four-door saloons, a Convertible and a small estate known as the Touring. Standard equipment was sparse by today’s standards – even a radio was an option – but buyers could add leather upholstery, ABS brakes or an on-board computer.
The ultimate incarnation of the E30 3 Series was the legendary M3, a track car for the road. It had a race-derived 200bhp 2.3-litre engine, blistered wheel-arches, large spoilers and a myriad of changes under its boxy body – it was a real road rocket and is now much coveted by collectors.
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BMW 3 SERIES: THE THIRD GENERATION E36 (1990-2000)
The third-generation 3 Series (the E36) represented a revolution – it was significantly larger for increased interior space while its styling was more rounded, with wider kidney grilles and glass panels covering its quad headlamps.
The four-door was the first to launch this time and while the Coupe was instantly recognisable as a BMW 3 Series it shared no panels with the Saloon. A Convertible and Touring were again offered and a three-door Compact was introduced as an upmarket hatchback model.
The engine line up featured four- and six-cylinder units ranging from the entry-level 316i to the 190bhp 328i. The M3 moniker returned, but this time it was developed as a road car and with 317bhp in the M3 Evolution it offered Porsche-baiting performance. This was complimented by an all-new multi-link rear suspension design which could better handle the increased engine outputs while still delivering the 3 Series’ trademark driver involvement.
This generation of 3 Series was also the first offered in the UK with a diesel engine, delivering refinement, performance and impressive economy – an indicator of how the executive saloon would develop over the ensuing years.
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BMW 3 SERIES: THE FOURTH GENERATION E46 (1998-2006)
Launched in 1998, the fourth generation of 3 Series followed a similar path as its predecessor – four-door Saloon, two-door Coupe, Convertible, Touring and three-door Compact. It was larger, offering more interior space – the 3 Series Saloon was now 15cm longer than the original E21 model.
Engines ranged from the 316i to the 330i with the latter being a genuine sports saloon with 228bhp. Along with the standard car the main trim levels were SE and Sport and for the first time all models featured air-conditioning as standard while more advanced items such as satellite navigation were on the options list.
The M3 had a 338bhp straight-six for a 0-62mph time of under five seconds, while the even more hardcore 355bhp lightweight M3 CSL was faster again. Both offer a sublime driving experience and are coveted to this day.
However, it was the arrival of the 320d and 330d diesel models that was of the greatest significance. The 320d overtook the 318i as BMW’s best-selling model in the UK in 2001 while the 330d with either 181- or 201bhp was a genuine 150mph car that was still capable of returning more than 40mpg.
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BMW 3 SERIES: THE FIFTH GENERATION E90 (2005-2013)
While BMW experimented with more avant garde styling on the contemporary 5 and 7 Series models, the design of the fifth-generation 3 Series was rather more subdued. And while it was bigger all round than the E46, lightweight materials ensured there was no weight gain.
For the interior BMW moved away from the driver-focused cockpit and a start/stop button replace the traditional key. Enhanced standard equipment included traction control and six airbags on all models. BMW’s iDrive system was offered for the first time in the 3 Series if satellite navigation was added as an option.
Diesel was the preferred choice of buyers with a 316d, 318d, 320d, 325d, 330d and even a twin-turbo 335d being offered, while increasing use of BMW’s EfficientDynamics technologies saw the most economical 3 Series, the 320d ED, return nigh-on 70mpg.
The Coupe and Touring models followed the pattern set by previous generations. However, the Convertible used a folding hardtop instead of a fabric hood for the first time. The top performer was the M3, now powered by a 414bhp V8 engine.
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BMW 3 SERIES: THE SIX GENERATION F30 (2012-2019)
The major departure for the sixth-generation 3 Series was BMW’s separation of the Saloon and Touring from the Coupe and Convertible, with the latter two cars now known as the 4 Series. The 3 Series did gain a new body style though, called the Gran Turismo, which was a longer wheelbase hatchback model that was very roomy inside.
The styling had been updated and once again it was bigger – nearly 10 centimetres longer than the E90 model it replaced, endowing the 3 Series with increased rear legroom and a 20-litre larger boot.
Along with enhanced specification – all models had air-conditioning, iDrive with a centrally mounted screen, Bluetooth and (from mid-2015) satellite navigation – and there were several trim lines to choose from; ES, SE and M Sport along with three new offerings called Sport, Luxury and Modern.
This generation of 3 Series also featured a number of firsts for BMW: all of its engines were turbocharged for the first time; xDrive all-wheel drive was introduced to the UK (and proved very popular); and the 330e was BMW’s first plug-in hybrid 3 Series.
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BMW 3 SERIES: THE SEVENTH GENERATION G20 (2019-)
The latest 3 Series, the seventh generation, promises to be the most complete incarnation yet. It’s packed full of the latest technology that’s filtered down from the 5 and 7 Series models and features BMW’s new Intelligent Personal Assistant – its take on Siri or Amazon’s Alexa – where you can talk to the 3 Series by uttering the words ‘Hey BMW’.
The launch models include the 320d and 330i but will soon be joined by the 318d and 330d along with the 320i, 330e plug-in hybrid and a range topping M340i with a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six and all-wheel drive.
Performance, refinement and equipment levels have taken a further step forward, ensuring that the G20 is a worthy model to continue the 3 Series dynasty.
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